The Daily Cross Hatch | Brian Heater | August 20, 2008
BURMA CHRONICLES reviewed by The Daily Cross Hatch
If there’s a major complaint to be levied against Guy Delisle’s new book, it’s a simple matter of unfortunate timing. When the Myanmar’s government was reluctantly thrust into the world’s spotlight by outrightly refusing aid following the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis, many US residents were sadly left to our own devices, cobbling together what small scraps of information about the region that had been gleaned from latter day episodes of Seinfeld and strangely-named Boston post-punk bands.
It would have, perhaps, given a few of our more comics-savvy residents a bit of relief in the face of their own geographical ignorance to know that, in a matter of months, Drawn & Quarterly would deliver a book by Delisle that does for the region what Pyongyang and Shenzhen had done for their respective cities.
Burma Chronicles is, in many ways, the logical successor to those volumes, detailing Delisle’s life under yet another politically oppressive regime. Things are, however, a touch different from the outset. Where both Pyongyang and Shenzhen found the artist traveling alone as part of his life as a supervisor of animation, this time out it’s his wife, an employee of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), whose career prompted the move with their infant son Louise in tow.
The shift in motivation affects Delisle’s storytelling in a couple of key ways. The work feels a bit more fragmented, particularly when contrasted with Pyongyang. The artist’s motivation feels decidedly less linear, this time out. Rather than maintaining a focus on his own livelihood, his day-to-day interactions largely revolve around the care of Louise, a cyclical existence that results in a more episodic breakdown of the author’s narrative. By the same token, his wife’s career affords him the opportunity to explore key subjects that generally play a minimal role in the existence of a studio animator, occasionally following the group around as they make calls to Myanmar’s most rural and impoverished regions.
As always, Delisle is unafraid to tackle the most grave aspects of the region he’s exploring, producing a book as unflinchingly informative as that associated with Satrapi or Sacco, but like the artist’s other work, Burma is steeped in a far more comic tradition, always seeking humorous moments in even the most unfortunate surroundings, a manner reflective in the artist’s characteristically cartoony shaky-handed line-style, which, rendered in black and white, might fit comfortably on the pages of a New Yorker issue.
Delisle’s humor, however, is seemingly careful not to make light of the issues themselves, but rather the business-as-usual routines of those who have ably survived in them (and his own occasionally thwarted attempts to do so). It’s these snapshots of everyday existence—a supermarket playing the same Karen Carpenter song on repeat or Delisle running around feverishly, apparently the only one concerned by his seemingly inevitable death by avian flu—that add up to a complete picture of what it’s like to be a stranger in such a strange land.
The artist’s focus on humor also makes Burma, like its predecessors, an incredibly readable book. Due in part to Delisle’s own situation at the writing of the travelogue, Burma sometimes falls short of the powerful moments induced by the work-a-day life of Pyongyang and Shenzhen, but it’s still another fantastic testament to the medium’s incredible power to simultaneously inform and entertain.